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Thai gov't censors opera on 'bad omen'

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Thai gov't censors opera on 'bad omen'

By GRANT PECK, Associated Press Writer1 hour, 32 minutes ago

Thailand's new military-appointed government has threatened to shut down an operatic version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, ostensibly over fears one of its scenes may bring bad luck.

"Ayodhya" premiered Thursday night and is scheduled for repeat performances on Saturday and Sunday, albeit with the 'offensive' scene toned down under pressure from Culture Ministry officials.

The matter is sensitive because Thailand's interim government faces criticism for not lifting curbs on freedom of the press and other civil liberties.

Composer Somtow Sucharitkul said Friday that ministry officials approached him a few days before the show's opening to complain about a scene involving the on-stage death of a key character, the demon-king, Thotsakan.

The officials, whom Somtow did not identify, said that portraying Thotsakan's death on stage was taboo in Thai culture and would be a "bad omen," the 53-year-old composer told The Associated Press.

Somtow - who also maintains a home in Los Angeles - said the officials told him that "if anything happened to anyone in power in Thailand, it would be blamed on this production."

Ministry officials could not be contacted for comment Saturday, when their offices are closed.

The Ramayana - the Thai version is called the Ramakien - is a Hindu epic that is the wellspring for much traditional Southeast Asian drama. A tale of love and death, good and evil, it is sometimes compared to the classic Greek Homeric myths.

Thai theater does have a tradition of not depicting death for fear it can bring misfortune but usually it is applied only to masked dramas known as "khon," according to scholars.

Somtow and the opera's stage director, Hans Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands Opera Studio, agreed a few days before the first performance to modify the controversial scene so that the audience would not actually see Thotsakan die.

The following day, however, the ministry sent over a new contract including "a broad clause saying that if anything in the opera offended the morals of Thailand, they had the right to close down the opera immediately," said Somtow, who signed it.

Somtow - a fervent monarchist who staged the work as a personal tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who this year celebrated 60 years on the throne - said the pressure "seems to involve nationalism - I'm not sure what it is - a desire to control the arts that is not really the Culture Ministry's mandate."

"This opera was not designed to be political in any way," he added.

The government of Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is facing criticism at home and abroad for its restrictions on democratic freedoms.

Surayud was appointed after a Sept. 19 coup d'etat that ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been accused of corruption and abuse of power.

Martial law imposed at the time of the coup has still not been lifted, and the media have been warned not to undertake reporting that could undermine stability.

At the same time, the new government, dominated by the army and conservative bureaucrats, have been heralding nationalism and morality campaigns in an apparent attempt to shore up support.

Somtow said the pressure on him had "rather dangerous implications" for Thailand's image, since it would lend ammunition to foreigners who have criticized the country's new political situation.

The premiere was attended as scheduled by one of Bhumibol's daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who requested to speak to Somtow at the end of the second act.

The cast, mostly foreigners since it is a professional Western-style opera, feared the show was being stopped and that Somtow would be taken away, the composer said.

But the princess "made light of the whole thing," and with a Culture Ministry official in attendance, wondered out loud what the problem was, Somtow said.

The Ramayana is traditionally a showcase for the classical dance traditions of India and the Southeast Asian countries where it is part of the cultural heritage.

But the new opera stakes a claim to being an innovative mix of modern European stagecraft with ancient Asian values. The cast includes Thai, Russian, American, Dutch and Chinese artists, and the singing is in English.
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